Ghost Riders in the Sky

September 9, 2007 at 10:23 pm 8 comments

The current musical project on which I am embarked has given me the opportunity to learn so much about some of the less-well-known popular music of the 1950’s and 60’s — especially the guitar-based instrumentals. I think both the music and insights to be worth sharing.

One of the side benefits of doing these arrangements has been what I’ve learned about the artists and music along the way. When I heard this song recently, it was an obvious candidate for one of my arrangements. It had been covered by the Ventures, The Shadows, the Spotnicks, and Duane Eddy. I subsequently learned that it was written in 1948 by a country artist named Stan Jones and covered by innumerable vocal and instrumental artists. There’s an incredible set of these versions at

This is my first take on “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.


The song tells the story of a cowboy who has a vision of red-eyed, fire-breathing cattle thundering across the sky, being chased by the ghosts of damned cowboys. One warns him that if he does not change his ways he will be doomed to join them, forever ‘trying to catch the Devil’s herd across the endless skies.’ Complete lyrics appear at the end of this entry.

Besides the timeless story it tells, one of the reasons it is musically interesting enough to warrant a purely instrumental arrangement is its phrase structure. The “A” section of the song consists of two 3-bar phrases and one 6-bar phrase (measures 4 – 15). This is quite unusual for popular music, which tends to be dominated by four-bar phrases.

Ghost Riders in the Sky Melody

The “B” section, built with two more conventional 4-bar phrases contrasts with the “A” section (measures 16 – 23).

I’m not sure I actually remember it first hand, but it did seem familiar when I heard it. Many old-timers may recognize it.


An old cowpoke went ridin’ out one dark and windy day,
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw
A plowin’ through the ragged skies and up a cloudy draw

Yipie i ay Yipie i oh
Ghost herd in the sky

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
He saw the riders coming hard… and he heard their mournful cry

Yipie i ay Yipie i oh
Ghost riders in the sky.

Their face is gaunt their eyes were blurred their shirts all soaked with sweat
They’re ridin’ hard to catch that herd but they ‘aint caught ’em yet
’cause they’ve got to ride forever in the range up in the sky
On horses snorting fire as they ride hard hear them cry

Yipie i ay Yipie i oh
Ghost riders in the sky.

The riders leaned on by him he heard one call his name
If you want to save your soul from hell a riding on our range
Then cow-boy change your ways today or with us you will ride
Tryin’ to catch this devil herd…. a-cross these endless skies.

Yipie i ay Yipie i oh
Ghost riders in the sky.

Entry filed under: Guitar, Music, Oldies, Vintage Instrumentals.

British Invasion Songwriting

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Patrick Dengate  |  January 13, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Hi, I play in a small musical group that performs the “Ghost Riders” melody. I’ve been trying to find out if the entire piece is still copyrighted, or just the lyrics (which we don’t sing)? Any idea? Thanks!

    • 2. shufflocity  |  January 13, 2009 at 7:35 pm

      Absolutely. The melody is covered by copyright.

  • 3. Patrick Dengate  |  January 14, 2009 at 8:57 am

    Thanks very much. I really like your treatment of it, BTW.


  • 4. Jud Jones  |  January 30, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    I have been collecting different versions of “Ghost Riders” for a number of years. I have over a hundred in my Itunes, and I know there are a lot more out there. I recently tried the secretspain link, which I had not visited for some time, and found the link did not work. Have you been there lately? Do you know what has happened to this excellent collection?

  • 5. Mike Ellison  |  May 22, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I’ve been searching for an instrumental rendition of Ghost Riders in the Sky that is similar to the music for the Johnny Cash rendition (i.e. primarily guitar). I’ve found a few (Scorpions, Ramrods, Ventures) but these are too interpretive. Most renditions have the words over laying the music.

    This is to be the battle song for my brother’s unit in Afghanistan. He’s First Air Cavalry and part of their unit crest has a horse. I suspect that they’ll use it in a manner similar to the way that Robert Duval used Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    • 6. shufflocity  |  May 22, 2009 at 6:17 pm

      I am, of course, familiar with Johnny Cash’s version, as it is classic. I am not aware of any instrumental versions that are similar. You are welcome to use mine — I tried to take a very traditional approach — but I certainly understand if it is not what you have in mind. BTW, if you haven’t heard it, the Outlaws version of this tune is outstanding.

  • 7. JohnMD1022  |  October 18, 2009 at 12:23 am

    There are over 1000 versions of this song.

    If you would like version lists, please contact me at

  • 8. Maxadolf  |  October 1, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Beautiful sound. Well done


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September 2007


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